You’ll see on the sports pages of The Star Press today that we’re honoring high school athletes who excelled at the very top of their sports during the fall season. They were the high achievers in East Central Indiana.
But they weren’t the only success stories.
Another part of athletic accomplishment centers around sportsmanship, a positive attitude and being the ultimate team player. Perhaps nobody embodied those qualities more than Emily Grider and Andrea Grasso of Delta High School.
Grider finished next to last in the New Haven girls cross country semistate Oct. 20. She placed 159th in a field of 160 runners. Yet, what she overcame to reach that point, and the person who gave her the opportunity to experience it, is far greater than a number on a results sheet.
That Grider was even able to compete that day was something she’ll never forget. She was diagnosed with chronic myloid leukemia in July. She was forced to spend the fall fighting that disease instead of leading the Eagles’ cross country team from the front of the pack.
But she responded well enough to chemotherapy treatments to the point she was able to get back late in the regular season and run in three meets. But she obviously didn’t have the strength that she had a year ago when she broke Delta’s 5K record for girls with a time of 19:58.
Grasso didn’t want Grider, a senior, to end her career without participating in what would be Delta’s final meet of the season. So the junior selflessly offered her spot in the Eagles’ lineup to Grider in the semistate meet.
Grasso volunteered to step away so Grider could experience the thrill of competing one final time before her eligibility was completed.
“It kind of touched me that you have a kid come out on her own and say it was the right thing to do,” Delta coach Steve Wray said.
The entire season was an emotional one for the Eagles.
Grider noticed in April during Delta’s track season that she felt fatigued and experienced “weird muscle pain” in her legs. When she didn’t get better by summer, she sought medical treatment. The diagnosis July 20, in the middle of Delta’s summer conditioning program for cross country, was stunning: chronic myloid leukemia.
Grider called her teammates together at the next conditioning run and gave them the news.
“We were all pretty devastated,” Grasso said. “Nobody expected that, and it was tough to hear that from her. There were lots of hugs. A lot of people were crying. It was tough for everyone.”
Grider was the top returning runner for the Eagles from 2011. She and sophomore Jenna Parsons were expected to be the top runners on this year’s team. Suddenly, the experience and talent Grider provided, plus her steady motivation and leadership, were not there like everyone thought.
Down but not out. Not by a longshot.
“From Day 1 of the diagnosis through today, I have not seen her have a down day,” Wray said. “Wonderful is the best word I can think of to describe Emily. She never says a bad word about anybody.”
“She’s probably the nicest person I’ve ever met,” said Grasso, who has known Grider since elementary school. “She picks everybody up when they’re down.”
Grider was good for the team, and her teammates were a boost to help during her recovery. And she got better, to the point that she ran in the Eagle Invitational on Sept. 22 — the anniversary of her school-record time and national chronic myloid leukemia day.
She ran in two more meets before the end of the season, and then the tournament trail started. Grider was put on the tournament roster, but she didn’t compete in the sectional or regional.
As the Eagles advanced through those tournaments, Grasso hatched an idea. She would step away so Grider could compete in the semistate.
“I think it was the right thing to do,” Grasso said. “She’s been a varsity runner all four years, one of our team leaders, and it seemed like she deserved her last race to be a varsity race.”
The girls have lockers next to each other. One day the week of the semistate, Grasso told Grider she was giving up her spot to allow Grasso to be one of the Eagles’ seven runners in the meet.
“I thought she was joking,” Grider said.
No joke. Grider would run in the meet that turned out to be Delta’s last of the season.
On the bus ride to the meet, Grider confided to Wray that she probably would finish last but she was determined to run all the way and finish.
Once the race started, Wray saw Grider a few times on the course. Each time, she had a beaming smile on her face. When Grider came across the finish line in 26:48, almost 10 minutes behind the winner, she raised both arms, Rocky style, and was mobbed by the other girls on the team. Even people who didn’t know her cheered the accomplishment.
“Then it kind of hit me, ‘Oh, I’m really tired,’ ” she said.
Worn out but satisfied that her goal of running the entire way was reached.
Staying close to her team throughout the year no doubt helped Grider’s recovery. She takes a chemo pill orally now every day and it’s not as harsh as regular chemotheraphy. The percentage of her cells infected with the disease are far fewer than this summer, and progress is being made toward a complete recovery.
“Running was important to her,” Wray said. “From Day 1, her goal was to run another 5K. It was never about being No. 1 on the team and breaking a record. She just wanted to run.”
And she did. One final time in her high school career to the delight of her family, friends and teammates.